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February 25, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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In Defence of Pretentiousness

A Canadian biologist I know once remarked that although Kiwis read more voraciously than most nations, we hardly ever discuss the books we read. We have a long tradition of laughing off academic pretensions. Mother Britain has had many literary Prime Ministers, from Disraeli with his comic novels and Gladstone with his mad three-volume explanation of why Homer was a Christian, to Churchill’s history of the Second World War. In Aotearoa, academic ability became a public handicap for late 19th Century Liberal MP and historian William Pember Reeves, driving him offshore. Regular Sunday newspaper columnists often bemoan its influence in the current government.

There is, of course, good reason to be skeptical of academia. Plain, direct speech carries a certain honesty, with no layers in which bullshit may lurk. But some things are complicated, requiring multiple viewpoints to solve. Our inability to listen to complicated terminology frustrates and drives quiet those who could act as public intellectuals. History professor and one-time television documentary maker James Belich remarked in Laurence Simmons’ Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand that he gave up trying to present our history via the telly because producers always demanded dramatized action: “you can’t state your qualifications, you can’t produce your evidence, there’s a pressure to communicate merely in slogans.”

When someone accuses you of being ‘pretentious’, what they will invariably mean is “you’re smarter/more well informed than me and I don’t like it.” George W. Bush told a Texas Monthly reporter in 1994 that he hated his years at Yale because of the way most students acted so “intellectually superior.” Well George, that’s probably because they are intellectually superior to you, and the world would be a slightly safer place if you had realised that. Similarly, we should resist those who say arcane subjects such as Latin have no place in the modern world. As my lecturer pointed out last year, Latin is extremely useful in the modern world – it allows you to understand the spells on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And since Buffy is entirely non-fictional, those spells will then empower you to end the war in Iraq, by turning all the US troops and local militants into fluffy bunny rabbits. So you see? Academia rules, and isn’t at all encased in a fairytale ivory-tower world.

So why does this matter?

How we value academic success has become an urgent matter of public debate following the tertiary education sector’s recent funding change. In the1990s, National introduced Estimated Full Time Student (EFTS) funding, which pays universities a certain amount based on their number of students. Known colloquially as “bums on seats” funding, this model encouraged universities to advertise for as many students as possible, and drop required standards so that uncommitted students are encouraged to remain on. EFTS ignored the academic success of departments, rewarding only their ability to appeal to as many students as possible. However, EFTS was only part of a longer trend – Salient surveys throughout the years show that pass rates for most subjects rose from around 70% of students passing in 1958, to at least 90% passing most subjects in 2000 (admittedly this may be because the populations has become generally smarter, but I haven’t seen enough corroborating evidence to suggest this is actually the case).

Since 2003, Labour has been progressively replacing the EFTS system with a Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF). This system awards 60% of funding based on the quality of each department’s research. Suddenly we have a funding system which actually acknowledges what the point of academic institutions is in the first place – to learn cool new shit.

Unfortunately, this new system has some negative side-effects. The most brilliant researchers are not always the best at presenting ideas to first-year students, so each department really needs a mix of great researchers and great teachers. Regrettably, PBRF only favours the former. Furthermore, research produced in some areas is easier to track than in others, and this may have be a factor in the Victoria University Film Department’s current problems (as Tania explains on page 15).

An even more significant complication for the PBRF system is that, because funding is no longer allocated on the number of students, universities are encouraged to limit student numbers (as Auckland University decided to do last December). In many ways this is a good thing – universities are supposed to foster rigor and intellectual drive, which means failing those students who cannot produce well-reasoned work. I don’t believe we should be anywhere near as closed as Switzerland, where the type of university a kid can attends is determined by an exam in their early teens. But allowing open-entry to anyone over twenty, and accepting mediocre NCEA results seems too lax: it leads parents and teachers to encourage everyone into uni, even those who prefer working with their hands. Subsequently Aotearoa has too few tradespeople, driving up the price of building, and too many young people who saddle themselves with student debt, only to find uni wasn’t really their thing.

On the other hand, as North & South magazine recently argued (“Going By Degrees,” March 2008 issue), students from lower-decile schools (i.e. poor areas) invariably have lower average marks than students from privileged areas. Many students who perform badly in poorly-funded high schools blossom once they scrape into university. Thus restricting university entry does not only bar those not suited to university – it also bars those whose home environments and high schools have let them down. However, North & South are slightly ingenuine to suggest that this means restricted entry is a bad, elitist thing. Restricting entry to the brightest students is really the whole point of university, but so long as our high schools fail potentially bright students, universities must remain open to give these students another chance. As long as our high school system fails to provide equal opportunities, our tertiary sector will have to pick up the slack.

One possible way to provide equitable open entry and still demand a rigorous standard is to allow a user-pays open entry system, with more substantial scholarships for successful students. Another, as John Minto suggested to North & South, is to allow open-entry to all first year courses, but restrict second year to students with high grades (as the Law School does currently). Unfortunately, the first solution may lead to cheaper university for the rich and more expensive for the poor, while the second solution encourages competitive information cramming to in-depth and often unsuccessful attempts to really discover new ideas, as anyone who watches the behaviour of law students can tell you.

No one human can ever know the full truth of everything that is, was or will be, if for no other reason than that there is so much to learn, and our days upon this earth are limited. But truth is still worth striving for, and we must allow ourselves the “arrogance” to tell people that they are wrong when all the evidence we have available suggests they are. Don’t accept the idea that showing your pretensions is bad.

Please send us a letter, else I’ll keep writing windy editorials. Email us at editor@Salient.org.nz or just drop a letter in the purple boxes in the Atrium, Old Goverment Buildings, and Te Aro campus..

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Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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